The Oxford English Dictionary defines empathy as “n. the ability to imagine and understand the thoughts, perspective, and emotions of another person.” But it seems that it is commonly misunderstood.
Narcissists lack empathy and narcissists are bad people, right? So empathy is a good, human quality.
According to psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, empathy has three components, cognitive, emotional and compassionate. It is the ability to really get into someone’s shoes and see through their eyes and for that reason it is often seen as a cuddly-wuddly emotion that may be useful when dealing with friends and family but has no place at work. But look at the definition again, to understand the thoughts, perspective and emotions of another person. Just imagine yourself in a negotiation, conflict or meeting and let’s imagine that you could read the minds of the others in the room. The rationale, values and motivation of the people you have to interact with.
Lack of empathy or narcissism also comes in different flavours, there are those who storm around demanding this or that because everything is about them, those who charm and manipulate and the poor-me types who feel that everything everyone does is designed to hurt them, this is an element of passive-aggressive types.
But the most ubiquitous flavour is just that you think that concerning yourself with the lives of others is just not part of the strategy. Empathy is simply an act of weakness.
Just imagine that you could read people’s minds. That would be a superpower, wouldn’t it? But if you practice trying to understand other’s motives, values and thoughts, you could (almost) do just that.
EMPATHY AT HOME
This is the warm, caring and nurturing flavour used with the people you care about most, but don’t confuse it with sympathy. Empathy is critical to communication at home and goes a long way to maintaining a stable home life. Try not trying to get your spouse or kids to agree with your view and try instead to understand theirs, you might find that you are closer than you think. I’m always having long exasperating discussions with my teens. They reject my reasoning, contradict themselves and stick to ideas because they are opposite to mine. BUT, I listen, validate, commend their reasoning and sometimes cause them to question their sources… DAMN YOU, TIK-TOK EXPERTS! The more I do this, the more they open up to listening to me. This is a work-in-progress but we are heading in the right direction.
EMPATHY IN PUBLIC SPEAKING
So, how can you have empathy with an audience, hundreds of people? Understanding your audience’s needs and perspectives will enable you to communicate on their level. If you have a group of academics who only understand information with an SI value or if you need to loosen up and give a little bit more engagement and even entertainment value. Your presentation should not be about you and your needs; taking time to understanding your audience’s needs will add value to your message. Talk their language and be receptive to their perspective. Q&A sessions will help but should be spread throughout your presentation, not tacked onto the end.
EMPATHY IN MANAGEMENT
Understanding how to make those who do, do better and with more commitment. If you are operating a machine, you will need to press the right buttons. No matter how hard you press the wrong buttons, the machine will not perform. Now, I know people are not machines but this analogy stands. As a manger, your responsibility is to help your team to perform. Entrusting them, enabling them and encouraging them to do their best is your goal.
A client of mine inherited a lady from another department (read: they dumped her on him). She was renowned for being difficult. He was worried that he was going to have a disruptive force in his team. I suggested that he listen to her to find out what she needed. It turned out that she was highly committed to the company but had a fairly shallow understanding of many areas of operation. The result of this was that she continually made suggestions that were not viable but still wanted recognition. My client started giving her recognition for her commitment while working on her training and understanding. She can still be a bit needy but her KPI is now one of the highest in the team and her manager knows how to allay her anxieties when they arise.
EMPATHY IN NEGOTIATIONS
Understanding the values of the counterpart. When we impose our own values on a negotiation we miss hidden value. Now, negotiation has a huge meaning, basically whenever we are trying to achieve an amicable transaction with another party. But, it’s easy to get stuck on the money or time or something else that is more obvious. Curiosity is the key to revealing those hidden values and your opportunities to find a point that has more value to the other than it has cost to you.
A client of mine closed a service deal; the customer agreed quickly to the price and conditions, maybe too quickly, she was kicking herself that she didn’t go in a little harder. The account was passed onto another team to manage and quickly the deal began to sour. The customer had complaints and found fault in the company’s service. I recommended that she call the people to get to the bottom of their issues.
“Are they doing what we agreed?”
“Are they over charging?”
After some well-placed curiosity she discovered that they had assumed they would be dealing with my client, at least as a point of reference. The rapport that she had achieved with the customer was the hidden value. Simple, but so easy to miss.
EMPATHY IN DAILY LIFE
Exercising empathy relieves stress because you don’t think that everyone’s behaviour is a reaction to you. Getting your head out of your own butt takes so much pressure off because you can enter an adult ego state. In Transactional Analysis, this is the more mature and balanced way to view your interactions with others. Understanding that someone is being difficult because they have domestic problems or have been working too hard. Curious empathy may help you find the other’s mindset and take that pressure from you. Truth is, it’s rarely about you. Others have their own lives, ‘THEY’ may not be trying to mess up your day and maybe, just maybe the universe doesn’t even know you exist.
So, Empathy is really just a fancy word for getting your head out of your butt and considering that someone else may just have a point of view. This is a huge subject and I’ve just skimmed the surface but in my experience just recognising that fact can be an epiphany for many. Over the coming weeks I will endeavour to elaborate on the areas above. BUT, you will have to get your curiosity switched on, get your head out of your butt and practice seeing the world from a different perspective if you want to improve your interactions with the world.